Refuting the errors of Jonathan Neville and the Heartland hoax

Friday, May 24, 2019

Neville criticizes Book of Mormon Central for being responsible

On January 23, 2018, Book of Mormon Central published the excellent KnoWhy, “What Was the Sword of Laban Like?” As usual, the team at BMC used good sources responsibly to produce something of value for Latter-day Saints who may not be aware of research that’s been done on Laban’s sword (first mentioned in 1 Nephi 4:9).

For some reason, Jonathan Neville decided to single out this KnoWhy in his May 23, 2019, blog post, “Another fiasco from Book of Mormon Central.” A fiasco is “a complete and ignominious failure,” so one would expect from the title of his post that Neville has caught the BMC staff publishing something so totally irresponsible that they should be ashamed of themselves. So, what is this “fiasco”?

Book of Mormon Central didn’t quote Oliver Cowdery saying something that we have no direct evidence that he ever said.

You read that correctly: Book of Mormon Central’s grave sin, according to Jonathan Neville, is not attributing to Oliver Cowdery a statement that we have no documented evidence Oliver ever wrote or said. What we do have are late, second- and third-hand recollections of something Oliver might have said, but putting those words into Oliver Cowdery’s mouth would be irresponsible—unless you’re Jonathan Neville, of course, for whom irresponsible scholarship is a daily endeavor.

Let’s break it down. Here’s the offending quote from the Book of Mormon Central article:
Finally, it is possible that the sword of Laban had words engraved on it. Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery once saw a large room which contained many plates. “The first time they went there the sword of Laban hung upon the wall; but when they went again it had been taken down and laid upon the table across the gold plates; it was unsheathed, and on it was written these words: ‘This sword will never be sheathed again until The Kingdoms of this world become the Kingdom of our God and his Christ’.”

It is hard to know if this was a somewhat symbolic vision, a vision of a real location with real items, or an actual cave which they visited in upstate New York. In any case, if they were seeing the actual sword of Laban, either in vision or in person, then this gives us one more detail about its appearance.
The quotation in the first paragraph is from Brigham Young in a discourse he gave on June 17, 1877, in Farmington, Utah. He told the people of Farmington an account of Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery returning the gold plates to the hill Cumorah in New York: “Oliver says that when Joseph and Oliver went there, the hill opened, and they walked into a cave, in which there was a large and spacious room” in which there were “more plates than probably many wagon loads; they were piled up in the corners and along the walls.” Brigham also said that this account came “not only from Oliver Cowdery, but other who were familiar with it.‘

I’ve previously discussed the origins of this story, which are both late and murky. Cameron J. Packer has documented all known sources of the “Cumorah’s cave” story:

  • The earliest is a January 1855 diary entry by William Horne Dame, in which he recounted hearing the story from W.W. Phelps, who said he (Phelps) heard it from Hyrum Smith.
  • The next is from remarks made by Heber C. Kimball in September 1856.
  • After that, the Manuscript History of Brigham Young for 5 May 1867 records Heber C. Kimball talking “familiarly to the brethren about Father Smith, [Oliver] Cowdery, and others walking into the hill Cumorah and seeing records upon records piled upon table[s].”
  • The first account of Brigham Young telling the story is in a January 1873 journal entry of Elizabeth Kane, a non-Mormon.
  • The first account of anyone claiming they heard the story directly from Oliver Cowdery comes from David Whitmer, in an interview he gave in 1877.
  • Brigham Young, in his 1877 sermon (quoted above), used the phrase “Oliver says,” but there’s no indication that Oliver said it to Brigham; rather, Brigham appears to have been repeating what other people had told him Oliver said.

To summarize: We have no first-hand accounts from Oliver Cowdery about the cave event (i.e., accounts written in his own hand). The first accounts of the story we have are third-hand (Hyrum Smith told W.W. Phelps who told William Horne Dame), written at least twenty-five years after the event took place. The first secondhand account (Oliver Cowdery told David Whitmer) doesn’t come until at least forty-seven years after the event. Competent historians (of which Jonathan Neville is not one) treat late, second- and third-hand accounts like these carefully, aware that stories often change over time as memory becomes less reliable and people expand on what they originally heard.

And Cameron brings up another important point in his documentary article:
With these reports of a cave in the Hill Cumorah comes the question, Was this a real cave that Joseph and others actually walked into, or was it a visionary, or “virtual,” experience? The wording of the accounts leaves the issue open.
With all of this in mind, it should be clear to the reader that the Book of Mormon Central KnoWhy was responsibly cautious with the source material, claiming that “it is possible that the sword of Laban had words engraved on it,” and that Joseph and Oliver “once saw a large room which contained many plates,” but that “it is hard to know” if the experience “was a somewhat symbolic vision, a vision of a real location with real items, or an actual cave.”

But Book of Mormon Central’s reasonable cautions are, to Jonathan Neville, vile heresy. He writes:
Possible? Oliver explicitly described the sword, which he saw during multiple visits with Joseph to the depository of Nephite records in the Hill Cumorah in New York. (See Mormon 6:6 and Letter VII.) M2C* intellectuals reject what Oliver said, as well as the teachings of all the prophets who have affirmed the New York Cumorah.
Neville is simply off his rocker. Oliver Cowdery never once “explicitly described the sword” in any of his own writings or in firsthand accounts of his remarks. Neville cites Mormon 6:6 and Oliver’s Letter VII, neither of which mention anything about a sword or a cave, let alone Oliver seeing or visiting them. “M2C intellectuals” are not rejecting Oliver’s words; Jonathan Neville is inventing things that we have no firsthand record of Oliver ever himself writing or saying.

Neville continues:
This is typical of these intellectuals. They could (and should) have linked directly to what Brigham Young taught. David Whitmer also explained that Oliver told him about this experience. Heber C. Kimball, Wilford Woodruff, and others also corroborated it.

But according to Book of Mormon Central, all these people were wrong.
First, the KnoWhy article does “link directly to what Brigham Young taught,” in footnote 15, documenting the article’s quotation of his 1877 discourse. Neville’s claim is specious.

Second, nowhere does the article claim that “all these people [who told the story] were wrong.” The fact that the article even cites the story as possible evidence disclaims Neville’s assertion. The article urges caution in interpreting the story as a possible visionary experience, but it doesn’t say it didn’t happen.

This is yet another example, in a mounting pile of evidence, of how Jonathan Neville is a fanatical devotee of a fundamentalist strain of Latter-day Saint belief that rejects anything outside of a narrow, selective, literalist interpretation of the scriptures. That belief—the Heartland hoax—has drawn far too many saints into its undertow, and its ultimate result will be, ironically, to cause them to disbelieve the teachings of living prophets, preferring a few select dead ones whom they believe agree with their fallacious views.

—Peter Pan

* “M2C” is Jonathan Neville’s acronym for the theory that the Book of Mormon took place in Mesoamerica and that the hill Cumorah in the Book of Mormon is not the same hill in New York where Joseph Smith received the plates of Mormon.

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